Orthodoxy Today
Good Marriage XV. Ensnared By Mindless Helping

The fear of man lays a snare, but he who trusts in the Lord is safe.(Pv 29: 25)
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.(Pv 3:5)

For Christians, help is a problematic concept. As an abstract construct help is ambiguous and open to multiple interpretations. (Morelli, 2006b). The American Heritage Dictionary (1994) defines help as "to give assistance to." This definition lacks, however, an interpretation of the effect of help on others, as well as the motive for giving assistance, to name two important criteria. This essay explores the scriptural, patristic and spiritual dimensions of help, offering a rich matrix for behavioral evaluation. Consider some examples of what has been called help that may occur in family situations.

Situation I: A Toileting Situation

Example I. A newborn infant has soiled itself and the baby's parents help by changing the dirty diaper and cleaning their infant.

Example II. A real help problem brought to me in counseling several years ago: A physically and psychologically healthy 7-year old is helped by his mother to wipe himself after toileting.

Situation II: Request for a drink or snack

Example I. A 2-year old is thirsty and asks his mother's help to get him some juice from the top shelf of the refrigerator which is out of his reach.

Example II. Another veridical family interaction: A mother, 16-year old son and 13-year old daughter are in the upstairs family room watching television. The daughter asks her mother: "what snacks are in the kitchen cabinet?" The mother helps by going down and reporting back to her daughter. The teenage girl then tells her mother which snack she wants and her mother goes back to the kitchen to retrieve the snack she wants and brings it back to her daughter.

Situation III: Picking up the child after an after-school event

Example I. A working couple has a school-age child who needs a ride home after a school event. The child's mother is extremely stressed and tired after a grueling day at work. She would have to go out of her way and be stuck in traffic to pick their child up. The father, who had the day off, is quite relaxed sitting around the house and playing videos. The wife calls her husband and asks him to pick up their son.

Example II. A working couple has a school-age child who needs a ride home after a school event. The child's mother is extremely stressed after a grueling day at work. The father had the day off, is quite relaxed sitting around the house and is playing videos. She thinks calling her husband would be inappropriate. He would be displeased and she would not be fulfilling her obligation as wife and mother. Tired and stressed as she is, she heads toward the child's school, in traffic jams, for the pickup.

Evaluating the situational examples

I believe the reader will note the second example in each of the situations above is dysfunctional and thus an illustration of mindless helping which engenders some harm to one or more of the family members. They are thus examples of hurting, doing wrong, and thus evil. They are detrimental to the spouse or parent as givers of the mindless help as well as to the spouse and children as recipients of the mindless help.

Here are a few other examples of mindless helping in marriage. I am sure you can add many others.

  • A husband helping his wife who is eager to learn household financing by doing all the domestic bookkeeping himself.
  • A wife who insists on helping her husband, who really enjoys cooking, to help the marriage by not allowing him in the kitchen.
  • A husband who helps his wife by picking out the clothes she buys and wears.
Criterion for judging Mindful helping vs. Mindless helping:
God's Love and Goodness

God is Love

St John tells us: "So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him." (1Jn 4:16) Furthermore, we are not only to love God as He loves us, but to love our brothers as well. St. John continues: "We love, because he first loved us. If any one says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also." (1Jn 4: 19-21).

Godly love is good

Consider the words of Jesus: "No one is good but God alone." (Mk 10:18). What follows from this is that God loves us and we are to love Him and all mankind. Love is only Godly if it is good, and is for good. The true meaning of love and its application help as a "good" is given in St. Paul's well-known definition of love. Love " … does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right." (1Cor 13: 6). What is good is right, what is bad is wrong A knife, such as a scalpel a surgeon uses to remove a tumor, heals the patient. This would be doing a good. A knife used to inflict injury on an innocent person would doing wrong, an evil.

The concept help, which is the application of love, must be evaluated in the same way. If it is for the good and welfare of self and others, physically, psychologically and spiritually, then it is Godly. If it brings about harm to self and others it is wrong and un-Godly.

Psychological factors

Mindless helping broadcasts a psychological need to nurture. In part this may be related to a mindset of the spouse that unless helping they are not living up to their marital and/or parental obligations. This behavior takes on compulsive qualities so that if nurturing or giving care is impeded, anxiety, guilt or dejection is elicited. Each time mindless helping occurs the doers' behavior is rewarded (negative reinforcement of inappropriate behavior) by the attenuated dysfunctional emotion. And the repetition of mindless helping behaviors strengthens the behaviors, thus making the inappropriate behavior more likely to occur in the future. On the other hand, the recipient of mindless helping is rewarded for dependency on others (Positive reinforcement of inappropriate behavior).1 Dependent individuals are also not provided with the opportunity to learn functional behaviors that they are capable of learning (for example, see Morelli, 2005, 2006).

Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain (Ageloglou, 1998) describes the deleterious effect of mindless helping on contemporary youth: "In our days, many young people have a strange attitude: they want to study without attending school (they often participate in school strikes, etc.), they want to have good grades without studying hard, and they want their graduation diplomas brought to them at the cafeteria where they are sitting having fun." Such a situation could only occur if the students are rewarded for their laziness rather than held to account for their studies.

In addition, a pattern if mindless helping can, lead to marital and family discord. If helping behavior is denied, a spouse or child may react by criticism or anger. For instance, in Situation II, above, Request for a drink or snack: once when the mother told her young teen daughter to find out what snacks were in the house herself, the teen responded in a huffed tone: "You just don't know how to be a good mother."

Mindless helping can also lead to lack of self-respect and the respect of others, who may be viewed, and perceive themselves as being viewed as subservient pawns. They become mere instruments, slaves to the beck and call of others. In such cases it behooves the mindless helper to engage in an assertive training program. (Morelli, 2006b).

Spiritual factors

Spiritually, mindless helping stems from the passion of pride, a mistaken understanding of the virtue of love, and not recognizing that all family members have free will and thus have responsibility for their own lives. St. John of the Ladder (1982) tells us: "Pride is a denial of God, an invention of the devil, contempt for men." The writer of the Ladder of Divine Ascent goes on to tell us: The proud man [male and female] wants to be in charge of things." This is one of the features of mindless helping. One member of the domestic church, husband, wife, offspring , wants to be in charge of what they think the other should be doing or not doing.

Christ's teachings

Let us consider Our Lord's parable of the ten bridesmaids:

Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. Then all those maidens rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' But the wise replied, 'Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.' And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut. Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, 'Lord, lord, open to us.' But he replied, 'Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.' Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour." (Mt 25: 1-4, 7-13).

This parable is about being prepared, taking responsibility for doing what one is capable of doing and the dire consequences of not taking responsibility. This parable is usually interpreted by our holy Church Fathers as the personal obligation to be ready for entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven. (Bl. Theophylact, 2006).

Applying the Parable's lessons

But surely it can be applied to the obligation for individuals to take responsibility to do anything they are capable of doing. The wise virgins did not mindlessly help the foolish ones, rather they assertively and mindfully told them to procure their own oil. This understanding of the parable of the ten bridesmaids is supported by the words of Jesus in the next parable (The Talents), described by St. Matthew (25: 14-30). Jesus said to the servant who buried his talent: "…You wicked and slothful servant!" Blessed Theophylact (2006) comments: "But if you should see an intelligent and skilled man misusing his intelligence in various pursuits ….you may say that such a man has buried his talent in the earth…" What would Jesus say to the mother who toileted her competent, healthy 7- year old, or what would Jesus say to the mother who servilely complied with her capable teen daughter's requests, or what would Jesus say to the tired, stressed wife-mother, whose child needed a ride home after school while letting her relaxed but qualified husband continue to "lay around the house."

Jesus Himself as our Model

Jesus himself did not shirk responsibly and work. It was he who was nailed to the cross and died for our salvation. No one took his place. This was to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah, "He took our infirmities and bore our diseases." (Mt 8: 17). As St. Paul told the Philippians about Jesus: "And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence work out your own salvation…" (2:8-12).

The witness and teaching of the Holy Apostles

St. Paul himself sets the standard. He tells the Colossians: "Him we proclaim, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man mature in Christ. For this I toil, striving with all the energy which he mightily inspires within me." (Col 1: 28-29 ) The Apostle to the Gentiles himself toiled, not in mindless helping, but that others might attain maturity. What is maturity? This is another way of saying we encourage all those around us to do all that they are capable of doing and developing fully. No one in the domestic church (the home) should enable dysfunctional behavior, or spiritual sloth or laziness, either within the household or in those encountered outside the home. Can this be more clearly and emphatically stated than the words of St. Paul to the Thessalonians? "For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: If any one will not work, let him not eat." (2Thes 3: 10 ).

St. Paul as our model

St. Paul practiced what he preached. He himself worked and did help those who were "in need", that is "the weak." St. Luke records the words of St. Paul in the Acts of the Apostles (20: 33-35): "I coveted no one's silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities, and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by so toiling one must help the weak..."

A blessed marriage imitating Christ and St. Paul

A couple in a blessed marriage should follow the example of St. Paul and in turn model it for their children: "For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, we did not eat any one's bread without paying, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not burden any of you. It was not because we have not that right, but to give you in our conduct an example to imitate." (2Thes 3: 7-9). And most important, spouses should apply these words of St. Paul not only to themselves but also to their children.

St. Paul's counsel is strong: "Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is living in idleness …" (2Thes 3:6). I am not suggesting spouses abandon one another or their children. I am suggesting that we work toward overcoming idleness by anyone in the family. Thus, it behooves skillful family members to help one another in situations where someone is incapable of some task, and promote by word and action appropriate behaviors (and Godly spiritual practices) that they are capable of doing. This same helping principle applies when encountering non-family members as well.

The teachings of our holy Spiritual Fathers

While not using the term mindful help, St Isaac the Syrian's words (Brock, 1999) counsel the same theme: "The desire of the Sprit for those in whom the Spirit dwells is not to let them grow accustomed to laziness, or to invite them to a life of ease, but rather to one of labors…" Add to St. Isaac's writing the wisdom of St. Peter of Damaskos: "For every action must be done at the right time and with discrimination [diakrisis] , so that it is not inopportune or detrimental" (Philokalia III p.97).

Helping guideline reminder

As discussed above, the criterion for guiding helping was that it be for the good and welfare of the individual. Just as Love and Goodness are found in God, these same qualities should be found in our interactions with others. The Church Fathers teach us knowledge of love and goodness may be acquired through discrimination. Once again, to quote St. Peter of Damaskos: "[d]iscrimination is characterized by an unerring recognition of what is good and what is not, and the knowledge of the will of God in all that one does." (Philokalia III). Discrimination, "…the ability to distinguish between spirits…" (1Cor 12:10), is considered by the holy spiritual Church Fathers to be a gift of the Holy Spirit. St. Paul tells the Ephesians (6: 17) and us that discrimination is a "…helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God."

Acquiring discrimination (diakrisis)

St. Paul goes on to tell us one way discrimination can be acquired: "Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication." (Eph 6: 18). St. Gregory of Sinai counsels: we should put ourselves under the direction of a someone holy and experienced and go "… to one, to someone who has been entrusted with the guidance of others as well, who is radiant alike in his life and in his words, and who although poor makes many rich (c.f. 2Cor 6:10)." (Philokalia IV p.183) This advice is in the spirit of Solomon, "Where there is no guidance, a people falls; but in an abundance of counselors there is safety." (Pv 11: 14) This is summarized in St. Paul's letter to the Hebrews (5: 12-14): "…you need some one to teach you again the first principles of God's word. You need milk, not solid food; for every one who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their faculties trained by practice to distinguish good from evil." We are to use our God-given gift of intelligence in this process. As St. Maximus the Confessor tells us: "[t]he Lord's commandments teach us to use neutral things intelligently." (Philokalia, II). This is done in union with the mind of, and in communion with, the Church founded by Christ by the descent of the Holy Spirit on His apostles at Pentecost, and passed to the bishops and priests of today. It done is by receiving her holy mysteries, and understanding the holy traditions and scriptures of the Church, as taught by the Holy Spirit-inspired Church.

A spiritual consequence of fostering dependency by mindless helping is keenly seen by St. Mark the Acetic: : "…laziness, which weaves the dark shroud enveloping the soul in murk. The third vice supports and strengthens the other two [forgetfulness and ignorance], consolidating them so that evil becomes deep-rooted and persistent in the negligent soul. … and through your true ardor for all that is good you will drive out the godless laziness that enables evil to root itself in the soul." (Philokalia I,) While St. Mark is concerned with actualizing spiritual knowledge, his words can be applied to the learning and performance of any activity before God that enhances personal function in the family and society.

Spiritual caveat: All for Christ and Christ for all

Spiritually, there is also the problem of purity of motive. One can administer aid for self-glorification rather than our of a genuine love for the good and welfare of the other. For a Christian, self-glorification is a vice while genuine love is Godly virtue. Consider the words of Christ: "But Jesus said, ' … no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me. For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink [as discussed above, to someone in real need] because you bear the name of Christ, will by no means lose his reward." (Mk 9: 39, 41). As discussed above, the help must be for someone in real need.

We can also recall Our Lord's own warning: "Not every one who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven." (Mt 7:21) Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain (Ageloglou, 1998) caught the possible trap: "It is very egotistical to believe that you are able to correct other people." Applying this wisdom to those in blessed marriage, the Church in the Home, it means that husband-father, wife-mother, and children, have to make all family decisions based on Christ and His teaching. This is to say, love of God and neighbor, as Christ Himself told us: "And he said to him, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself'." (Mt 22: 37-39). Applying this counsel to family and all mankind means mindful helping for the good and welfare of the other, in the name of Christ.

Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. (1Tim 4: 12).


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Ageloglou, Priestmonk Christodoulos. (1998). Elder Paisios of The Holy Mountain. Mt. Athos, Greece: Holy Mountain.

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Blessed Theophylact. (2006). The Explanation by Blessed Theophylact of the Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew. House Springs. MO: Chrysostom Press.

Brock, S. (1997). The Wisdom of St. Isaac the Syrian. Fairacres Oxford, England: SLG Press.

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Gottman, J. (1994). Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. Simon & Schuster: New York.

Morelli, G. (2005, September 17). Smart Parenting Part 1. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/MorelliParenting.

Morelli, G. (2006a, February 04). Smart Parenting Part II. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliParenting2.php.

Morelli, G. (2006b, July 02). Assertiveness and Christian Charity. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliAssertiveness.php.

Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (Eds). (1979). The Philokalia, Volume 1: The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Markarios of Corinth . London: Faber and Faber.

Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (1981). The Philokalia, Volume 2: The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Markarios of Corinth . London: Faber and Faber.

Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (Eds.). (1986). The Philokalia, Volume 3: The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Markarios of Corinth . London: Faber and Faber.

Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (Eds.). (1995). The Philokalia, Volume 4: The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Markarios of Corinth . London: Faber and Faber.


i. A short Primer on Behavioral Management

Behavior is shaped (made stronger or weaker) by it's consequences.

Consequences that make behavior stronger or more likely to occur again:

Positive reinforcement: After behavior occurs it is followed by a pleasant event.
Negative reinforcement: After behavior occurs an unpleasant event is taken away.

Consequences that make behavior weaker or less likely to occur again:

Positive punishment: After behavior occurs it is followed by an unpleasant event.
Negative punishment: After behavior occurs a pleasant event is taken away.

For a more detailed explanation see: https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles8/Morelli-Smart-Parenting-XII-The-Time-Out-Tool.php and https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles8/Morelli-Smart-Parenting-XIII-Tools-for-Smart-Punishing.php.

ii. This respect for free will must be accepted between husband and wife. Communication of reasonable expectations of one another should be effectively employed. An example of this is using the Preference Scale in communication, collaboration and negotiation. (https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles7/MorelliSmartMarriageIV.php). Parenting, however, involves an interaction with offspring that becomes more paradoxical over time as the children of a blessed marriage increase in age and development. A child is completely dependent on his or her parents at birth and the early years. As development ensues, smart parenting means allowing children to make (age-appropriate) decisions for himself or herself and thus assume increasing levels of independent judgment. As the offspring get older, especially in the teenage years approaching and reaching legal adulthood, some differences in viewpoint have to be accepted by the parents, in imitation of Jesus, himself, who accepted the decision of the rich young man who rejected His words about what was required to attain eternal life. (see Mt 19: 16-26, as well as: https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliParenting2.php)

iii. The wisdom of Solomon and St. Gregory of Sinai (Philokalia IV) to seek guidance is not limited to spiritual issues. The authors of many self-help books of scientific cognitive psychotherapy interventions (e.g. Burns, 1980; Beck, 1988; Ellis and Harper, 1961; Gottman, 1994), frequently suggest readers consult trained clinicians in dealing with their problems. Burns, for example, points out that it is "unreasonable" to expect to improve or recover after reading his book. What is needed is "the additional help of a mental health professional." St. John Cassian (Philokalia I) cites the necessity of knowledge, quoting from the Book of Proverbs (24: 5): "A wise man is mightier than a strong man, and a man of knowledge than he who has strength.." This wisdom is certainly helpful in treating mindless helping.

Fr. George Morelli

V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.

Be sure to visit Fr. Morelli's new site Orthodox Healing  for the latest essays and information.

Published: February 8, 2009

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